March Madness Upset Picks: Ranking the Best Chances for a 5/12 Upset in This Year’s NCAA Tournament

March Madness Upset Picks: Ranking the Best Chances for a 5/12 Upset in This Year’s NCAA Tournament article feature image
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Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: McNeese’s Omar Cooper.

We finally have a bracket, and we kick off the greatest sporting event of the year on Tuesday evening. The rich history of the NCAA Tournament is filled with incredible moments and unbelievable upsets.

Whether you're a casual college basketball fan or a professional gambler, these moments leading up to the first matchup feature plenty of mentions of some common trends.

Some of you reading this have probably heard the following statement a plethora of times at the water cooler:

"Make sure you take a couple of No. 12 seeds in your bracket since they always win their first game."

Well, not quite. It's fascinating to dig into the history of the NCAA Tournament and realize how far that statement is from the truth.

Here are a couple of key stats you should be aware of before we break down the matchups:

  • In the last 14 tournaments, No. 12 seeds own a 33-22-1 ATS mark against No. 5 seeds (59% win rate).
  • No. 12 seeds are 53-99 straight up against No. 5 seeds since 1985 (roughly 35% win rate).
  • Since 1985, only 16 No. 12 Seeds reached the Sweet 16. Only one reached the Elite Eight.

It's important to note when to factor these statistics in, however. If you're betting the game individually or filling out a bracket for a contest, the discrepancy in straight-up win percentage and cover percentage is massive.

To assist in your wagers and brackets, I will dive into all four 5/12 matchups and rank them in confidence order on which team has the best shot of moving on.


UAB Blazers

vs. San Diego State · Confidence: 1/4

The UAB Blazers out of the AAC take on the San Diego State Aztecs.

The Blazers earned their NCAA Tournament bid by winning the conference championship. If they didn't go on a run there, they would not have earned an at-large bid.

The Aztecs had a solid season in the Mountain West, which ended up being a six-bid league. Many find San Diego State to be vulnerable, but we must remember that these Aztecs were a 5-seed last season and lost in the national title game.

This is a great story for the Blazers, but I don't see how they win the matchup outright. They rank 202nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they don't defend any particular area on the floor well.

The offense is the strength of their squad, led by Yaxel Lendeborg, who averages 14 points per game. They're a dreadful 3-point shooting team, and the Aztecs rank 20th in opponent 3-point percentage anyway.

UAB can only win the game if it consistently makes trips to the free-throw line, which is possible against a foul-heavy SDSU defense. That may lead to a cover, but there's not enough explosive scoring and consistent defense to pull it off.


Grand Canyon Antelopes

vs. Saint Mary's · Confidence: 2/4

The Grand Canyon Antelopes are a fascinating team entering the Big Dance, but unfortunately for them, they drew the WCC champion Saint Mary's Gaels.

The Gaels have been one of the nation's best teams since the beginning of January, losing only one game during that stretch.

However, the Lopes have proven they're far superior than the conference they play in. They're very balanced and capable of relying on either end of the floor.

The issue is Saint Mary's is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and despite the absence of forward Joshua Jefferson, it's still a terrific team.

The majority of the Lopes' scoring comes from inside, but the Gaels rank fifth nationally in opposing 2-point percentage.

The frontcourt of Tyon Grant-Foster and Gabe McGlothan is extremely lethal and can cause issues for the Gaels down low. I expect them to draw heavy attention and unclog the interior throughout the game.

If the Saint Mary's look as sharp as it did in the WCC Tournament, I have a hard time envisioning GCU pulling off the upset. However, I think it should be a close game either way, and I may end up backing the Lopes with the points.

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James Madison Dukes

vs. Wisconsin · Confidence: 3/4

The Dukes will be one of the most popular bracket picks in the country, and for good reason. They enter the tournament after a terrific regular season that culminated with a Sun Belt Tournament Championship.

On paper, it's a great matchup for James Madison's offense. The Dukes have plenty of offensive firepower, ranking 46th in adjusted efficiency.

They're also shooting 37% from deep, which is a great sign against a terrible perimeter defense from Wisconsin. Despite being due for some regression in that department, the Badgers defense is among the worst in the nation against the triple.

The Dukes have a clear advantage in the paint as well, shooting 54% inside the arc, which is the 40th-best mark in the country. Wisconsin's interior defense is below average, so JMU shouldn't have a hard time scoring throughout the game.

With a rank of 12th in experience, the big stage shouldn't bother James Madison. This team owns a key edge in terms of depth, which is uncommon for most mid-major teams when they face power conference opponents.

On top of that, JMU ranks second nationally in 3-point defense, with opponents shooting just 29% from beyond the arc.

Although the Dukes foul a bit too often, they rank 24th in opponent effective field-goal percentage.

JMU is one of the strongest bets in the opening round, catching 5.5 points. I would be most confident in this 12-seed moving on if it weren't for the final matchup.


McNeese Cowboys

vs. Gonzaga · Confidence: 4/4

My favorite pick of these matchups is McNeese State.

Led by head coach Will Wade, the Cowboys won an impressive 30 games this season and hold the third-longest active winning streak in the country at 11.

Although Gonzaga has also played well, it lost steam toward the end of the year and fell short in the WCC Tournament final.

McNeese ranks 51st in adjusted offensive efficiency, and despite its small size, it's a formidable offensive team.

The Cowboys especially excel in offensive turnover percentage, effective field-goal percentage and free-throw attempts per game.

While their free-throw shooting isn't perfect, they make up for it with impressive 3-point shooting. Shahada Wells, Javohn Garcia and Antavion Collum all shoot better than 41% from beyond the arc.

What sets McNeese apart from other teams is it doesn't rely solely on the triple. To advance in the NCAA Tournament, teams need to be versatile on the offensive end, and the Cowboys have proven they are.

The only area of concern is their defensive rebounding, but they make up for that by forcing plenty of turnovers. The Bulldogs should be wary of this aggressive defense.

Wade's experience should not be overlooked, and both teams are evenly matched in terms of depth. It was also a down year in the WCC, so don't be surprised if the Bulldogs' metrics are fool's gold.

While many people may pick the Zags based on their brand, McNeese deserves more recognition.

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